Veeps (Top Shelf)

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As McCain and Obama mull over their vice presidential choices, Top Shelf presents this fun look back at America's greatest political second bananas, like our pal to your left, the one and only Spiro Agnew.

 

296 pgs. B&W; $19.95 hardcover

(W: Bill Kelter; A: Wayne Shellabarger)

 

What a time to be alive and reading this book.

As I write this, the news media is buzzing with  speculation over who Obama and McCain will choose as their running mates. There's a lot of fuss over something that modern political scientists say is a fairly inconsequential choice. 

The cover to Veeps. Click for a larger image. In recent years, America has seen two fairly historic VPs. Dick Cheney reached new levels of power by warping the boundaries of his office. And Al Gore has similarly expanded his celebrity. Through knowledge and activism, Gore has become the most famous vice president to have never become president.

There were notable second-in-commands before that too. Comedians' lampooning of Dan Quayle made him a household name. Add scandal to the comedy and you have Spiro Agnew.

As a political science student, I learned that quite a bit of this new notoriety can be contributed to modern media. Previous vice presidents were likely talked about just as much, but no one really heard about too often. 

Luckily for us lazy historians and folks with dark, dry senses of humor, Bill Kelter and Wayne Shellabarger have set out to give ticket-fillers their proper fame.

 Veeps chronicles the vice presidents with a humor and accuracy that makes the tome rest somewhere between comic and textbook. Aside from vice presidential portraits and the occasional panel in each bio, there aren't many pictures, but however spread out they are, each one is a pleasure to look at. The portraits show each VP's blandness or wild, borderline insane enthusiasm, while also adding an overall air of insignificance to each figure. Arguably the funniest portrait is of Rutherford B. Hayes' man William Wheeler. Wheeler notoriously didn't want the position and his portrait shows such disdain and reluctance that it's almost surprising he showed up to the White House. (This picture made the cover).

But as easy as it is to tease the veeps—it becomes easier after reading the book—just flipping through the portraits gives a little insight into each man's character. From the insane-looking and fairly famous John C. Calhoun to the practically unknown and sickly Thomas Hendricks, each black-and-white drawing shows a distinct man and hints at the tragedy beneath.

Each biography focuses on the more embarrassing and bizarre aspects of the veeps' lives. That, combined with the portraits gives the book a fairly gloomy feel. But the little details, such as the flourishes around the text and entertaining supplementary drawings gives Veeps an overall jaunty tone that makes it hard to put down, even though it's nearly 300 pages of solid, block text.

At its heart, Veeps is an oddity. The format isn't that of a comic, and the prose is too incomplete to be a true history. But the drawings are good and the text is enlightening. Instead of offering nothing to the comics fan or political scientist, it gives a big heaping bunch of historical fun to the curmudgeons that fit both categories. | Gabe Bullard

Click here for a 12-page preview of Veeps, courtesy of Top Shelf! For more, visit www.veeps.us and www.veepsblog.com!

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